2013 Nissan Sentra SR first drive review: The seventh generation

2013 Nissan Sentra SR

2013 Nissan Sentra SR

The 2013 Nissan Sentra arrives on the market for its seventh generation—they grow up so fast—into one of the most competitive segment of the market, up against the likes of Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda Mazda3 (here and here), Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mitsubishi Lancer, Dodge Dart (here and here), Volkswagen Jetta…the list goes on. And the market segment is the second largest in the U.S., so success for any of these models is important to its maker.

The problem is that among the primary competitors, the Elantra had a full model change in 2011 and the Cruze was all new that year also, replacing the Cobalt. The Civic and Focus had a full model change last year, and the Dart is fresh on the market as a new model. The Corolla is due inr 2014 for a full model change and the Mazda3 (subject to a “minor change” just last year) is due for a full model change in 2015. No one, perhaps excepting Mitsubishi is asleep in this market, which according to Nissan, will grow from about 2,120,000 for the current model year to almost 2,400,000 for the 2015 model year.

2013 Nissan Sentra SR interior

Bright “aluminum” trim accents the interior of the 2013 Nissan Sentra SR. (Click to enlarge)

What that means for the consumer is that as the opportunity increases, all makers will fight harder for a bigger piece of that bigger pie.

It won’t be easy. And if the Nissan Sentra is to be noticed and make that leap onto a buyers’ short list, it will have to do something more than other models from other makers.

The Nissan Sentra doesn’t have a bold design. Certainly it’s handsome and sophisticated, sleeker and more aggressive than its predecessor, and it doesn’t have the bank robber anonymous getaway car styling that last year’s Nissan Sentra had. In this market, however, just to be noticed requires, to paraphrase Mama Cass, sending the customer somewhere he or she has never been before.

2013 Nissan Sentra SR

The 2013 Nissan Sentra is powered by an all-new 1.8-liter four cylinder engine. (Click to enlarge)

And there the 2013 Sentra has one advantage. The folks at Nissan were brave enough to put LED running lights—Nissan calls them “LED accents”—and LED taillights on all trim levels, even the base Sentra S. That’s it, Nissan, dazzle ‘em. The neighbors will notice there’s a new car in the cu-de-sac.

What’s more important, however, is what’s under the skin. In fact, all the way to the bone. The 2013 Nissan Sentra is 150 lbs lighter than the outgoing model, thanks largely to the use of high strength steel, which not only means increased rigidity and safety, but because there’s less needed, there’s less weight. And less weight, even that of one passenger more or less, means better fuel economy. It’s better than leaving little brother sitting on the side of the road.

The reduction in weight accounts, according to Nissan, almost a fifth of the 2013 Sentra’s improved fuel economy. Not far short of a third comes from an all-new engine. The new 1.8-liter four replaces a 2.0-liter engine on last year’s Sentra, and at 130 horsepower for the new engine, loses ten horses in the process. And despite a longer stroke (which gearheads will tell you generally means more torque), torque numbers slide as well, the new engine rated at 12b lb-ft. But if we thought last year’s engine was smooth—and we did—the new 1.8 beats that.

2013 Nissan Sentra Xtronic CVT

Cutaway of the 2013 Nissan Sentra Xtronic CVT shows the steel belt and pulleys. (Click to enlarge)

The payback comes in fuel economy. The 2013 Nissan Sentra with the continuously variable transmission (a 6-speed manual is available on the base S model) is rated at a combined fuel economy of 34 mpg. That’s not highway fuel economy, but combined. The EPA estimates for city fuel consumption is 30 mpg and 39 mpg for highway.  A special fuel economy model, the Sentra FE+S, adds a rear spoiler, underbody aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance tires to gain another mpg on the highway.